Confusion Reigns in Tennessee

Teaching science in Tennessee may become more confusing now that an antievolution bill has been added to the state's statutes.

Governor Bill Haslam yesterday declined to either sign or veto HR 368, which prohibits school officials from stopping a teacher from helping students understand so-called controversial subjects such as evolution and global warming. Never mind that teachers say they need no such protection, or that thousands of educators and scientific societies (including AAAS, which publishes ScienceInsider) had urged Haslam to veto the bill because it wrongly suggests that the scientific community is divided on these issues.

Haslam said he took no action despite the fact that he fears the legislation will lead to "confusion" in the classroom rather than "clarity." He added, "I don't believe that it accomplishes anything that isn't already acceptable in our schools." But Haslam, a Republican elected in November 2010 to a 4-year term, may have been bending to the political winds in his state: The bill passed by a 3-to-1 margin in both the state House of Representatives and Senate, and any veto could have been overridden by a simple majority of legislators.

The new law reflects the current strategy by opponents of evolution to push for "critical thinking skills." It specifies subjects that "may cause debate and disputation, including but not limited to biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning." An amendment clarifies that the topics must already be part of the state curriculum, a last-minute attempt to blunt concerns that advocates were trying to introduce new material.

But critics of the measure, like Joshua Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education, think that lawmakers are being disingenuous by saying they are simply trying to help teachers who want to give students an opportunity to express their doubts. "Advocates [of HR 368] say that it doesn't change anything," says Rosenau, who also blogs at Thoughts from Kansas. "But if that's the case, why have a law? The sponsors have said that the bill makes it clear that teachers can't go beyond the current curriculum, but I've read it, and I don't think it imposes any such restrictions."

Scientific groups suspected that they were fighting an uphill battle once the legislature passed the final version last month and sent it to the governor, who had 10 days to act. But that didn't stop them from making their case. "There is virtually no scientific controversy among the overwhelming majority of researchers on the core facts of evolution and climate change, and these subjects should not be taught as if there were such a controversy. It is discouraging to see legislation that encourages teachers to help students 'critique' the 'scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses' of what are in fact well-established theories," said AAAS CEO Alan Leshner in one of several recent missives that urged Haslam to veto the legislation.